I Got Rosanne Cash’s Black Cadillac Album And Barely Survived

Every once in a while someone will ask me, “Why don’t you write about Rosanne Cash anymore? And hey, whatever happened with your marriage proposal to her?”

It’s true that I was one of the first (or, anyway, one of the most effusive) to praise her work as a writer—not just as a singer and daughter of Johnny Cash who happened to do beautiful versions of other people’s songs. I heard the soulfulness when she sang her own words.

And it’s true that I wrote a column praising her in the form of a tongue-in-cheek marriage proposal (well, mainly tongue-in-cheek).

And some readers may have missed Ms. Cash’s incredibly gracious and good-natured response to my proposal in a letter to the editor that The Observer published—my favorite letter to the editor EVER—in which she said that she was going to hang my column “in a prominent place” so that if her husband ever showed signs of neglecting her, she’d let him know that she was “not without options.”

And yes, it’s true, after a couple of years of waiting, in an embittered mood—said husband evidently having failed to act badly—I had publicly retracted my marriage proposal and offered my hand (also unsolicited, needless to say) to Ms. Cash’s only rival for my singer-songwriter fantasy-crush affections: Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies.

Clearly I was unhinged by Ms. Cash’s combination of enviable talent, her tragically seductive voice, her spiritual/carnal romanticism—and her utter neglect of me. And so I tried to stay away. I tried not listening to her last couple of albums. There’s just a certain amount of emotion one can handle.

And then I heard her voice on that killer duet with her father, “September When It Comes” (it’s on Rules for Travel, from 2003). Let me just say: It will change your life, or at the very least it will change the way you think about death. Still, I was determined not to be drawn back in. Nothing was going to make me listen to this year’s Black Cadillac, her so-called “Death Album”—songs she wrote in the aftermath of the deaths of her father Johnny, her mother Vivian and her stepmother June Carter Cash.

So even after everyone started kicking up a fuss about Black Cadillac, I wouldn’t go near it. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I’m still not sure I can, but I have listened to it and (barely) survived, and I think I figured something out about it that no one else has really put together, mainly because most writers have been blinded by the Cash mystique, boringly ramble on about it in relation to the biopic of her father (Walk the Line) and haven’t really understood her the way—as I emphasized in my “marriage proposal”—that only I can.

No one, for instance, has gotten the way that Black Cadillac is not merely spiritual, but spiritual in a specific way: an anti-church, non-Christian, anti-organized-religion, pro-pantheist, non–New Age spirituality with a twist. One that involves what I’ve chosen to call “tragic pantheism” or even “apocalyptic pantheism.”

It’s funny how these things happen, the path that led me back to Rosanne. It began with an e-mail alerting me to a “Losers’ Lounge” tribute to the Highwaymen.

Let me take a moment to explain to readers who are unfamiliar with the Highwaymen, the outlaw-country supergroup featuring Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson. To me, they were like the Beatles of outlaw country: great voices, great tunes, great Attitude. And now ripe for one of the Losers’ Lounge twisted hipster tributes (April 13-15 at Joe’s Pub). I wouldn’t miss it—but before getting further into Ms. Cash’s latest work, let me put in a word for the Highwaymen in relation to Harvard’s Harvey Mansfield and “manliness.”

The Highwaymen don’t get as much respect as a group as each individual does or did, but they deserve it for their choice of songs and the philosophical thread that links them. Philosophical? Listen to “It Is What It Is,” “The Road Goes On Forever,” “True Love Travels a Gravel Road.” There’s a shared “Sunday Morning Coming Down” sensibility: the voice on Kristofferson’s masterpiece of Rueful Experience and Attitude.

Forget Harvey Mansfield, there is a real-deal philosophy of manliness in these songs. A genuine philosophy that Mr. Mansfield—having never, I suspect, done much hard living aside from the hard travelin’ he does between the seminar rooms of Harvard—would not understand (or so I judge from seeing his totally pathetic and self-destructive C-SPAN interview with Naomi Wolf). It comes down to, for want of a better phrase, Higher Ruefulness. To paraphrase Blake: The road of excess leads to the palace of rue. I might have to devote another column to explaining this concept, but I suspect that those outside the academy, men and women, will get it.

Anyway, to prepare for the Losers’ Lounge experience, I picked up a Cash-inflected Highwayman CD I didn’t have and found myself unable to resist getting a copy of Ms. Cash’s Black Cadillac. Before I get into my whole “tragic pantheism” riff, let me say this is a stone killer disk. It’s a quantum leap in soulful songwriting, singing, synergistic musical accompaniment and challenging lyrical subtexts. If it doesn’t blow you away, you’ve got, as D.J. Frankie Crocker used to say, “a hole in your soul.”

I’m just going to focus on one song, though: “God Is in the Roses.” (Actually, just two passages in that single song.) O.K., I could talk about “I Was Watching You,” with its Lucretian vision of all-creating love. (Could she have read my column on Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, the great Roman poet’s creation epic? In my dreams.)

But in “I Was Watching You,” a song that words on a page cannot do justice to, you have to hear her voice when she croons:

And I was watching you

from above

long before life

there was love

So deceptively simple, so profound (she could somehow see her father before she was even created), so Lucretian. Lucretius believed, as I’m sure you know, in a kind of Unified Field Theory of Everything—that the binding force in the physics of the universe, a curve of binding energy which he personified as Venus, was Love: that which brought everything into Being and held it all together.

But I’m not going to dwell on that, or on “The World Unseen” with its killer line:

And I will look for you in Memphis and the miles between

I will look for you in morphine and in dreams

Somehow, I don’t think Harvey Mansfield has ever had sentiments such as this uttered to him, manly as he is, much less sung to him. (“I will look for you in the stacks of Widener Library” doesn’t cut it.)

And I won’t focus on the anti-church, anti-Christian passages in the songs (“the church leads you to hell” and “I wish I was a Christian / and knew what to believe.”)

I will focus only on two passages from “God Is in the Roses.” You really have to hear her sing it in its delirious lyricism, but here are the words to the first passage:

we’re falling like the velvet petals

we’re bleeding and we’re torn

but God is in the roses

and the thorns

O.K., let me begin by saying that most pantheism tends to be an optimistic faith. Most pantheism tends to give you only “God is in the roses” and refuses to acknowledge the thorns. You know: New Age pantheistic bullshit about how we’re all God and God is us and “the planet” is all a Big Rock Candy Mountain of holiness. Yeah, right.

No, says Rosanne (and who better to know about roses?), God is actually in the roses and the thorns. That’s actually—as I believe Vincent put it in his discussion of German heroin in Pulp Fiction—a pretty “bold statement.”

If God inheres in tragedy and evil, then that God is no goody-goody deity, but rather a character from Dostoevsky or Kafka. He’s a very Mixed Being (or, at the very least, Mixed-Up), much like us. The New Age pantheist God is some jolly leprechaun spirit who lives in flowers; the God of tragic pantheism is a spirit of darkness and pain as well (“we’re bleeding and we’re torn”).

It’s a bold statement, it’s a brave statement, and, even though the lyric on the page can seem to tiptoe up to the border of triteness, when you hear Rosanne Cash sing it with her profound lyrical resignation that practically defines tragic pantheism, you understand EVERYTHING.

But then there’s this mysterious other passage in “God Is in the Roses” that I couldn’t figure out for a long time, even after incessant replayings:

I love you like a brother

a father and a son

it may not last forever

but it never will be done

Huh? “Not last forever,” but “never will be done”? Is this one of those Dylanesque lines that teeters between profundity and a parody of profundity? How can something not last forever but never be done?

But then a speculative theory about it occurred to me: It’s the pantheistic version of The Rapture. A love that’s been suddenly, apocalyptically interrupted doesn’t last forever, but it’s never “done.” It was still in the process of creation when its arc—at least its arc in the flesh—was interrupted.

Painfully sad but beautiful—apocalyptic pantheism! I don’t think Lucretius himself could have come up with that. I like it a lot. Sign me up.

Rosanne, you have me back again. I Got Rosanne Cash’s  Black Cadillac Album  And Barely Survived